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The Promise of Legal Pot

America came close to legalizing marijuana in the 1970s. What went wrong?

David McNew / Getty Images

Marijuana permeated every aspect of hippie culture in 1960s: Think of Merry Pranksters sitting atop a Volkswagen bus smoking a branch-sized doobie. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Janis Joplin all smoked marijuana. Joints, supplied by Bob Dylan, “turned on” the Beatles in 1964 at the same time that their music was shifting from the saccharine pop of the 1950s to the sitar-laced grooviness of the 1960s. Marijuana was not just the iconic substance of a decade, like absinthe in 1920s Paris, or tea in Victorian England. Smoking marijuana was also a formative act.

Basic Books, 320 pp., $28.00

Young people smoked both because they liked getting high and because they felt that marijuana built community, creating a ritual that was political as well as social. It separated them from their elders, who were shocked by the social changes of the era. Most importantly, it was illegal: Taking a toke in public was a micro act of resistance against the state which, at the time, locked young people away for partaking in mood-enhancing THC while encouraging them to dump napalm on Vietnam.

Grass Roots: the Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America by Emily Dufton, a new history of the fight to legalize marijuana, is geared toward Americans for whom marijuana increasingly means more than hippie culture, or the African American culture around jazz music before it. The anti-conformist culture lives on, but supplemented by a whole range of medical, therapeutic and other uses. Masseuses from Seattle to Denver rub cannabis oil on the achy muscles of their patients. Books like Grow Your Own and Herb offer directions on cooking everything from apple pie to pasta to granola using cannabis. Americans may now walk by medical marijuana dispensaries on their streets and encounter full legalization initiatives on their ballots. Dufton’s book provocatively asks (and answers) the question: Why did this take so long? 

The short answer is that marijuana was almost legalized by Generation 68ers who had copiously sampled it in places like Haight-Ashbury and Greenwich Village. It was decriminalized in many states in the mid-1970s—even in Mississippi, South Dakota, and other states not known for their counterculture scenes. Marijuana legalization was supported by a variety of social movements with very different claims to moral legitimacy. First, hippies advocated for legal pot because it was going to change society and “turn people on.” Everyone was encouraged to smoke as well as experiment with other drugs, including substances such as LSD and cocaine, which were not considered inordinately risky.

The focus of Grass Roots is how that legalization movement was subsequently challenged by another kind of activist group: concerned parents, who wrestled away government attention from decriminalization efforts and advocated for protecting children. Dufton shows that these activists were not, initially, conservatives scandalized by their kids’ long hair and electric guitar music. They were often progressive community activists who had supported civil rights and were concerned about how adolescent marijuana use would tear apart young people’s lives, creating  long-term health affects and leading to harder drugs. The efforts of these groups were gustily taken up by the zero-tolerance Reagan administration but were also distorted through the professionalization of the War on Drugs—which was left to law enforcement with little patience for community building. This heavy-handed approach continued until the late 1990s when the Just Say No status quo was finally challenged by social justice initiatives concerned with mass incarceration.

The history of marijuana legalization highlights two shameful aspects of U.S. drug policy: the tendency to militarize public health problems, leaving social issues in the hands of SWAT teams, and the stark disparity between drug enforcement for whites and African Americans, many of whom served lengthy sentences for marijuana possession up until the past decade. 

Although Richard Nixon had taken a harsh stance on marijuana in his War on Drugs, by the time Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, the national approach to drug enforcement had drastically shifted. Nixon’s policies around marijuana had betrayed his own paranoia about young people and social change; he warned in private that “every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish.” But Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, was less committed to the War on Drugs. First Lady Betty Ford even told reporters that she “assumed” her children had tried marijuana and that if she were their age she would “be smoking a joint herself.”

Several years later, First Lady Rosalynn Carter effectively concurred, saying that she hoped her children would be honest with her about marijuana and that her husband, while not a fan of full legalization, would support decriminalization. When Carter took office, he appointed the physician and anthropologist Peter Bourne to oversee decriminalization. Bourne, who eventually resigned amid scandal, began to collaborate with more controversial legalization activists such as Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The partnership between marijuana activists and the federal government was practical rather than ideological: Budgets were limited and, much like today, stoned teenagers in the drive-through line made little impression amid a slew of heroin overdoses.

At the same time, some Americans were worried about the ubiquity of drug culture. Main Street shops openly sold bongs and marijuana leaf tchotchkes for customers who didn’t bother to move off the sidewalk, or look out for children, when they lit up joints. The public display of marijuana culture became a point of concern because of the rapid displacement of drug taboos. It became likelier than ever that children would grow up regarding marijuana use, and maybe experimentation with other drugs, as entirely normal.

Dufton zeroes in on one parent activist in particular: Marsha Schuchard. Schuchard, an Atlanta liberal with a Ph.D., co-founded the group Parents’ Resource Institute on Drug Education (PRIDE) after witnessing her adolescent daughter’s friends unabashedly getting stoned at her backyard birthday party. Dufton argues that activists like Schuchard, comprised of well-educated and socially progressive parents, were dismayed by the carelessness of decriminalization policies, which did not make an effort to shield children from soft drugs. Schuchard, who began with a crusade against paraphernalia, eventually came to believe that the drug problem “was not heroin addiction, which affected a small marginalized population, but pot-smoking, which touched so many families.” 

By 1980, over 300 parents’ groups had formed in 34 states. President Reagan was far more eager to hear from them and steer financial resources in their direction than his predecessors had been. Some of the activists were suburbanites upset with their children getting stoned in the dark corners of the neighborhood cul-de-sac, no matter how other activists echoed the new Administration’s grimmer forecast about the effects of soft drugs on society. For the Reaganites, even soft drugs were an existential menace to American progress and were to be rooted out using strong-armed policing and long prison sentences. Joan Brann, an African American Oakland resident, worked at the State Department, before starting Oakland Parents in Action, an organization that aimed to combat drug use in a largely low-income black community. Even though Brann got her start in the milieu of radical black activism, she nonetheless supported Reagan’s harsher drug laws as a means to save her community from drug addiction. It was during a visit to her group’s headquarters that Nancy Reagan lifted the motto “Just Say No.”

By the time the Reagans earnestly faced the nation on television, sitting rigidly hand-in-hand and imploring young people to “Just Say No,” adolescent drug use was already declining. But that would not stop the president from pushing through harsh new laws with mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana dealers, whose transgressions were folded into the moral panic of the crack epidemic. 

Where Grass Roots falls short is in its discussion of drugs and race. Dufton observes how drug laws disproportionately affect African Americans, writing that “marijuana, and the activism surrounding it, has rarely been about the drug itself. Instead, debates over cannabis have always centered on the people who use it and whether they’re benefiting from the drug or being harmed by it.” Even though “blacks and whites use marijuana in equal numbers,” she reminds us that “African Americans face a far greater threat of arrest and incarceration.” With so many unjustly imprisoned, she points out the urgency of decriminalizing marijuana.

Yet, Dufton does not tell in any detail the story of black and Latino activists working toward decriminalization, relying instead on a summary of Michelle Alexander’s important book The New Jim Crow. Nor does she flesh out how all drugs, not just hard drugs, are connected to racial fears. Parent activists were instrumental in pushing for new drug laws in the 1980s but it’s doubtful their agenda would have been so successful if marijuana had not always been a racialized substance: smoked by Harlem jazz musicians and Latino farm workers, who bestowed the drug’s very name. In the popular imagination drug users morphed from urban social outlaws to suburban kids in varsity jackets, but the penalties ratcheted up by the Reagan administration fit the fears of the latter. Harsh laws were largely aimed at dealers, who were still imagined as misfits, foreigners, and, all importantly, the black underclass, a community supposedly beset with pathologies.

While parent activism is an important and understudied piece of marijuana enforcement history, it doesn’t quite get at why parents were so afraid. Concern for children may have helped slow down decriminalization efforts, but the association of all drugs with urban black communities is what created absurdly harsh jail sentences.  

Grass Roots reorients the celebratory drug legalization story that is so often told today in a number of ways. It challenges the chronology by showing how close the United States previously came to acceptance of marijuana before a new climate of fear swooped in. (This is a point worth remembering now that the avowedly anti-pot Jeff Sessions is Attorney General, a man who once joked that he didn’t see anything wrong with the KKK until he found out they liked to get stoned). Dufton is also even-handed in her treatment of anti-drug activists, taking seriously both their concerns for child safety and the potential effects of the cavalier attitude members of organizations like NORML took toward marijuana. 

Last, by making the history of legalization about activist groups, Dufton shows how the debate over marijuana played out among numerous camps, many of whom never saw eye-to-eye: the weed revolutionaries, who used the drug (amongst a smorgasbord of pharmacological options) to open the doors of perception; the libertarians staking claim to freedom from excessive government control; patients using marijuana as medicine; people of color organizing against excessive sentencing for nonviolent crimes; and “green” entrepreneurs betting that an end to prohibition will bring them a windfall. Dufton takes on all of these voices in the battle for legalization while giving equal attention to those who fought against marijuana on the grounds of public health and child safety. 

The sad irony of the long saga for marijuana legalization is that much of the hippie generation may only experience legal weed at the end of their lives as a medical supplement for terminal illness—unless the current legalization trend speeds up and circumvents federal resistance. National public opinion toward marijuana use softened dramatically during the AIDS crisis when young men dying in San Francisco hospitals were given edibles by the grandmotherly weed activist “Brownie” Mary Rathbun. Yet, even with sympathetic examples like these the acceptance of medical marijuana was slow. When medical marijuana was first legalized, the patients were typically people dying of cancer, who already had access to a pharmacopeia of opiates, hoping only for relief from nauseating chemotherapy treatments. Even this was begrudged for years.

Now, millions of Americans have access to marijuana without a doctor’s note and, to many, the end of prohibition is just over the horizon. However, Dufton’s book shows not just the caprice of U.S. drug policy, but how quickly and dramatically the legal and social changes called for by the hippie generation were quashed, creating a backlash still felt today.